On Saturday, November 21st, you had been gone for two years. Two years. Years. What a strange thing to think about, that you haven’t been on this earth in two years. That’s a long time, Dad. It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to put into words what missing you has felt like, but I really want you to know. Two years feels like such a long time, and maybe people think I should be “over it” by now– whatever that means. But two years isn’t really that long, in the grand scheme of things, is it?
What’s happened since then, Dad, in those two years? Everything. It seems like everything has happened. We sold the house, Dad. The one I grew up in, the one where you worked in the basement and mowed the lawn and buried the dogs in the back yard and put up the zipline for us and our friends to play on. The house where we had Christmas mornings and went trick or treating and we stood by the front door smiling for the camera with our backpacks and lunch boxes on the first day of third grade, where we waved as we pulled out of the driveway and left for college. Where we played in the back yard when it snowed and played in the sprinklers in the summer. The house where the neighborhood boys ran wild and then left their rubber boots in a pile in the garage and where Emily and I sat and made sculpy creations for hours at the kitchen table. Where I learned to play the piano and then the clarinet and then bassoon. Where we grew up. Home. We sold Home.
It wasn’t the same without you in it, though, Dad. It was cold and smelled of sadness, of all those things so many years ago, the scent of them fading away. I had a hard time going back there, Dad. Mom did a beautiful job of making it feel like it used to, resurrecting the ruin to remind it of its former glory. Candles, apple pies, decorations on the kitchen table. If I held my eyes just right I was 15 years old again and everything was still okay. You would have been so proud of her, Dad. Taking that house apart was the hardest thing she’s ever done. Taking that house apart was the slow undoing a lifetime of things made just right. What to do with this picture, that lamp, these boxes of old things we don’t use but can’t get rid of. Goodwill, yard sale, give to a friend. Watching my hand toss this memory in the bin. I can’t keep everything. I don’t want everything. I just don’t want it to be over. We cried a lot, Dad, mom and I did. We cried for what we had, for how it fell apart, and for how we can’t ever put it back. We cried for you. For your empty space in all the places where you should have been.
I also got married. It was the most wonderful, happiest day of my life. I still cannot believe it was so perfect. There was so much love there. Everyone who means the most to me was all in one place and I couldn’t stop smiling. I wasn’t sad that day, Dad, not at all, because I knew you were there. I knew exactly how you would have looked at me in my dress, how you would have been so proud to walk me down the aisle, how awkward you would have been when we had our dance, and probably how you would have said something inappropriate during the toasts. I loved the pennies you left for me on the table. They took my breath away.
Big things have happened, Dad, but small things have, too. Weekend nights watching television on the couch with a commercial you’d think was funny, holidays where you’re not there, celebrations, bad days and tears when I can’t call you, more regular Thursdays than I can count. Those are the days I miss you the most. I don’t go to pick up the phone and call you as much anymore. For a long time I did, and it was a stab in the heart each time I’d remember. I can’t call my dad. He’s dead. My dad is dead. It’s gotten easier to talk about you in the past tense. My dad was. He used to. It doesn’t take my breath away anymore. I can tell a My Dad Was story without crying. In fact, usually people laugh, which is what you would have wanted anyway.
I’ve tried to think of how to explain this to people who haven’t lost a parent, or someone so close and important. I don’t think there is a way, though. You have or you haven’t. You know or you don’t. Nobody wants to be a member of this club, but the membership is not optional. You Know. Living on Planet My Daddy Died is not somewhere anyone chooses to reside, and you can’t really write home to explain what it’s like. I wish I could explain it though, because sometimes it’s lonely on this planet.
At first, the grief was a dark, bottomless ocean. I felt consumed, so infinitely small and vulnerable, flailing and gasping, choking as the waves battered from every direction. I was afraid of drowning. It seemed impossible that I wouldn’t, that the pain was so deep that of course I would either be sucked under or I would get so tired I’d just breathe it in and let go. That lasted a while. Those waves would pelt me when I least expected it. At work, at the gym, driving by a hardware store on the way to the grocery. I was always on alert, always afraid of when the wave would knock me down. Then there the was a day when I felt my toes touch something down below, grazing the rocky bottom of that angry ocean. I realized then I would not drown. I could touch, I could stand and keep my head above the water. Little by little, I began to notice the sun rising. I felt the warmth of normal life peeking back, small creases of pale light on the horizon. The new sun on the water revealed not an angry ocean anymore, but something smaller, more contained now. The waves no longer crested in angry foam, but came in swells, though sometimes still lifting me from my foothold on the ground below. They still splashed fear and longing on my face, my hair still soaked with grief, but I knew that there was something solid below. I was no longer afraid of drowning. I learned I could move in it. I could step this way, reach out my hands and feel around me, explore it. I still felt small and overwhelmed, but I no longer feared being swallowed. Even now the sun continues to rise in the sky and the water becomes less oppressing. I’ve made it through the hardest part, I think. It was a long night, but I did not drown. Sometimes I still get splashed and even knocked down, but I am not afraid of the undoing. I realize now that you can be totally covered by emotion, it can beat through all of your senses and swirl angrily around you, but you do not become the emotions. They come and go. But I am still me and I am making it through. Grief may not be comfortable, but it will not be the end of me.
That’s sort of what it’s like I guess, Dad. It’s been a very full two years, full of just about everything one can feel. I don’t regret anything that I’ve learned or the ways I’ve grown from losing you, but oh, how I wish you could still be here. Maybe one day the grief will be a calmer water, a tide that comes lapping on the shore. Maybe one day that’s how I’ll visit you. I’ll walk along the shore of the grief and remember the time I had with you, letting the water wash around my ankles and chase the sand back into the surf. How peaceful that seems now, to think of it that way. It will have come full circle then. That feels wonderful, Dad, because you know I’ve always loved the ocean.